For most of us, our brain is an unknowable thing, and the landscape and pattern of our minds is as foreign as the bottom of the ocean. We tend to stumble through our mental processes on instinct, following our thought life wherever it goes and assuming there’s little else we can do.
That’s a perception Dr. Caroline Leaf hopes to change. She’s a cognitive neuroscientist who’s been researching the connections between our minds, our brains and our bodies for almost 40 years, and she’s been using her studies to teach people how to manage their minds and organize their “mental messes.”
Dr. Leaf recently spoke about her research and how she has “spent these years working out how to capture thoughts or bring those thoughts into captivity and renew our minds, using all the science that God has given us.”
This talk has been edited for length and clarity.
To start, I think we need to define some terms. Most of us tend to use “brain” and “mind” interchangeably, but you draw some distinctions for the purposes of your work. Can you explain that?
Always a good place to start. Yes, people do use it interchangeably and incorrectly. They’re two completely different entities and work in different ways, but they work together.
Basically, if you look at yourself, that’s your physical body. You have your brain in your head. And those physical parts of you that we can see are only one percent of who you are. The other 99 percent is your mind. Your mind is your you-ness, your I-factor. Mind is what drives the physical. The brain is a responder. If you’re dead, your brain will disintegrate and your body will disintegrate. But when you’re alive, the energy from your mind is what’s keeping the brain and body alive. Mind is this energetic force. Nothing weird, total science. Science is very spiritual.
So the brain is the body part but the mind is a little more personal.
The most simple definition of mind is it’s how we think and feel and choose. You’re always thinking, feeling and choosing.
Think of the fact that you can go three weeks without food. You can go three days without water. You can go three minutes without oxygen. But you don’t even go three seconds without using your mind. Your mind is operating 24/7. As you wake up in the morning, your conscious mind switches on, and you start converting every experience from that cell phone that you’re reading, the text, the message, the Instagram, the conversations, the work. Whatever it is that you do, all of that is experienced through your mind. Your mind thinks, feels and chooses about every experience, and then it’s converted. Your mind pushes that through the brain. The brain then responds electrochemically and electromagnetically, and on a quantum level and genetically, and converts everything into protein structures inside of your brain that look like trees.
And that’s where we get into neuroplasticity — the idea that your brain changes and adapts.
You literally are changing your brain as you are experiencing life. You’re always experiencing life, which means you always look through your mind, and that means your mind’s always changing, which means your brain’s always changing, which means your body’s always changing.
So we’re changing on a daily basis, whether we like it or not.
We have to control our mind in order to be able to keep our body and brain healthy. That’s the basic process.
That’s happening all the time, whether you like it or not, whether you control it or not, it’s still happening. My argument is: Let’s control it.
If you don’t control it, you build toxicity into your brain versus building health into your brain. And we see from science that our brain is actually wired for love. Our mind is wired for optimism. We’re wired that way for our own survival. We need love to survive. We’re made in God’s image. God is love. At the core of our physical body and mind is this nature of survival, which is operating in love. So anything that goes against that affects the health of the brain, health of the body, and the health of the mind. We can actually control that process. That’s the overarching premise.
So where do we tend to go wrong when it comes to taking control of our minds? Why is this such a struggle for so many of us?
The statement that you made now is one of the most common things that people will say to me. They say, “How do you get your mind under control? How do you get your thoughts under control?” The answer is it’s a skill that you develop.
We’re taught how to eat properly. We’re taught how to exercise. We all understand that you can’t just become an athlete overnight; you’ve got to go and train to become an athlete. You’ve got to go to school to become educated. What we’re not trained to do is to actually develop the mind to be able to keep our emotions and the way we function healthy.
I’ll demonstrate this. As we’re speaking now, I know people can’t see us, but I can see you and you can see me. I’m reading your body language. You’re reading mine. I’m observing that. I’m adjusting my words. All of that is our ability to stand back and observe ourselves thinking and feeling and choosing. So that ability that we have to stand back and observe is self-regulation, and that is absolute key in getting ourselves into a state that we can actually change our mind and get those thoughts.
So we’re sort of hyper-aware of ourselves right now because we’re seeing ourselves interact on a video screen, and we can train ourselves to bring that same awareness to our daily lives.
We can live in the state of awareness that I described earlier on where I’m observing myself. We can train ourselves to be in that state. As we interact with ourselves and others, we can just be so much more self-regulated. It’s a systematic, deliberate and intentional process. I’ve made something that’s non-conscious, conscious. And by making it conscious, you can then use it and practice and become more efficient, which is the same principle as going to the gym. You just become more proficient at it.
Now I am at the stage in my life where I’ve been researching this all these years, so I’ve had the opportunity to practice and use it. I still have a mental mess, but the difference now is that I know how to control it. I know I can recognize it because as I’m getting in a mental mess, I know how to stand back. Immediately, I’ll jump and stand back and observe. What am I saying? What am I doing? Et cetera, et cetera. How am I thinking, feeling, choosing? I can catch it quickly, and then I can renew it quickly. I can actually transform it. I can re-conceptualize it. That’s really what transforming is. I can get better control. So I’m more proficient now at catching it quicker and managing it more efficiently so that I have a lot more mental peace because I know how to clean up my mental mess very quickly. That’s what happens. It’s less. It gets better and better all the time.
Do you still struggle with toxic thoughts and “mental mess” as you call it?
Of course, I do. I go through it all the time. But I can catch it faster and I get out of it quicker. That’s the big difference.
The Bible says, “Bring all thoughts into captivity.” I’m telling you how to do it. So if you say, “I can’t renew my mind. I can’t bring all thoughts into captivity.” You’re basically taking all the philosophy of what you believe and saying, “I can’t do it.” I’m saying, “No, you can do it. You can renew your mind. It’s actually an instruction that we have, so here I’m giving you the tools to do it.”
In renewing your mind, you get renewed energy. You bring brain and body health back. You bring mind peace back. You bring that sense of peace and happiness. You’re getting to that mental space where you can connect with God. Otherwise, people are in the situation where they’re using God as a genie and using scripture as a bandaid, working it on and saying, “OK, ten scriptures over this.” Or, “I’ll pray a little bit. Oh, I still feel so …”
Here is a way of praying continuously, being in that state of constantly accessing the wisdom of God. Think of it like this. If you’re supposed to be praying continuously, which is an instruction; and worshiping God, by self-regulating, you can get in touch with your made-in-God’s-image mode. What I’m saying is that you’re actually training yourself to talk to the Spirit of God 24/7. That’s essentially what this is teaching, which is what the Bible tells us to do.
There’s my answer. You want to know how to do it? Here’s the science. Science is from God. Science and spirituality are the same thing. Science comes from the word spiro, which means knowledge. God is the source of all knowledge.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.